Duke of Edinburgh's Award: What, Why & How?

Do you want to be pushed out of your comfort zone, go on amazing adventures, or develop strong leadership and team building skills? If you have a willingness to give it a go, discover why the Duke of Edinburgh's Award can give you the edge in the race for university places.
Duke of Edinburgh's Award: What, Why & How?
By Carli Allan
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The blisters, putting up a tent in the pouring rain, or the challenge of scaling a mountain in the midday sun: the memories of a Duke of Edinburgh's Award can last a lifetime. It can be the event in your secondary education to complete the Bronze Award – and then a life achievement to achieve Silver and Gold. It’s about far more than cooking over an open fire in the wild. It’s about standing out from the rest. It’s all about setting personal challenges and pushing personal boundaries. And it’s about gaining work-ready skills, helping others, pushing yourself physically, and exploring the world.

The Award is not a compulsory part of the UK National Curriculum, but in 2019/2020, 159,051 teenagers and young adults achieved a Bronze, Silver or Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. And there are currently more than one million young people worldwide now doing the international version of this award, called the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award.

Founded by the late Prince Philip, the DofE was one of the Duke’s most remarkable achievements, and it has become woven into the fabric of the UK. "It's what I like to describe as a do-it-yourself growing up kit," he once said.

Whilst The DofE charity mourns the loss of its founder, it celebrates His Royal Highness’ incredible legacy. Ruth Marvel, CEO of The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award said:

“The Duke’s timeless vision for young people has never been more relevant or needed. The DofE has played a crucial role in supporting young people to survive and thrive despite the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic, and we will continue to build on his legacy.

“The Duke was a lifelong advocate for young people, believing in each individual’s potential and creating in the DofE what he saw as a ‘do-it-yourself growing up kit’. We’re honoured to continue HRH’s work, to ensure that all young people – especially those from marginalised groups – can benefit from the better educational outcomes, employment prospects, community ties and better mental health that are associated with doing DofE.”

This extra-curricular activity for teenagers and young adults involves plenty of effort, time (and sweat) at a time when students are studying hard for GCSEs and A Levels – so why do it? Yes, it’s an adventure. (And yes it’s a chance to escape the parents for a weekend!) But, more importantly it builds the skills to equip students for life and work.

WhichSchoolAdvisor.com looks at why and how students join the programme, we ask if it is that golden ticket to university, what schools in the UK are doing to support students who do the DofE, and how the award has changed due to Covid-19?

Teenagers and young adults can choose from a wide range of activities to complete their DofE Award

What is the Duke of Edinburgh's Award?

The Duke of Edinburgh's Award is an activity programme for 14 to 24-year-olds. There are three progressive levels which, when successfully completed, lead to an internationally recognised Bronze, Silver or Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. Each award involves helping the community/environment, improving fitness, developing new skills, and planning, training for and completing an expedition. 

Gold participants also complete the Residential, which takes place over a period of at least four nights and five consecutive days; working with a team of least five people, this could be a residential language course, youth camp overseas, voluntary work with national parks, youth parliaments, sports coaching, or being a crew member on a tall ship.

Cast aside those images you see of students weighed down with backpacks scaling a mountain in the rain – the Award is much more of a gradual climb than a race to the top. The four main sections of the Award – Volunteering, Physical, Skills and Expedition – focus on many different opportunities for personal development. And with each stage lasting from six months up to more than one year, it’s a long-term commitment.

For your voluntary service section, you must do something useful without getting paid – and that could be helping children to read in libraries, leading a voluntary scout group, litter picking, or working at an animal rescue centre. Get ready to raise the heartbeat and break out a sweat for the physical activity, where you can choose any sport, dance or fitness activity, from archery to windsurfing, caving to tap dancing.

The skills section is your opportunity to learn a new skill in the arts, animal care, gardening, fishing, marine biology, first aid, blogging – the list continues and is as varied as it is long. And finally, for your expedition section, you will need to plan, train for and complete an unaccompanied, expedition lasting from two to four days; this can be completed by foot, cycle, canoe, horseback, wheelchair or kayak.

Ruth Marvel, CEO of the DofE, said:

“Nobody forgets their DofE – the connection with someone new while volunteering, the inedible meal you made around the campfire, the power at your fingertips as you learn to code. Yet it’s also often the changes that happen inside you that make the deepest impression: recognising how the skills, resilience and self-belief you’ve built through your DofE helped you be ready for anything."

There is a Physical Activity to complete for Bronze, Silver and Gold

How do I sign up for the Duke of Edinburgh's Award?

A school, college or youth group has to be licensed by the DofE charity to run the programme, and there are currently hundreds of state and independent schools in the UK offering the programme. Schools will typically run weekly training sessions where students can plan for their future adventure trip, learn skills, and update their online DofE record book.

If you’re interested in doing your DofE you can:

  • Ask your school, college or university
  • Join a national youth group that runs the DofE for its members, such as the Scouts or Girlguiding
  • Join your local youth club if it has a DofE licence
  • If you’re over 18, do your Gold with DofE Direct

The DofE Award offers opportunities to explore a new skill

Why should I do the Duke of Edinburgh's Award?

Universities and employers are looking for a strong combination of leadership and teamworking skills – and the Award allows students to achieve this in one go. There are stories of students who didn’t get the grades they expected for their A Levels but were still offered their university place because of their passion, skills and commitment shown in the Duke of Edinburgh's Award.

And there are many more tales of students who have found that the Award has changed the course of his life. According to the DofE website, 62% of participants felt that the Award helped them make a difference to their community, and 82% felt that the award made them want to continue will volunteering activities. And did we mention that it’s lots of fun, too!

While students only have a degree of academic freedom when studying A Levels or the IB Diploma Programme, the Award framework is not prescriptive; it can be tailored to your specific needs and interests. It is very much a personal challenge where the only person you are competing against is yourself. And it is constantly adapting to the changing times with a new list of activities recently added to include public speaking, engaging in politics, learning about climate change and becoming a mentor to someone younger.

Many young people find DofE life- changing, and there are many stories of discovering talents, broadening life experiences and make lasting friendships.

After overcoming Raynaud’s disease, Emmaline achieved all three DofE Awards and discovered a love of volunteering.

“I truly believe that my DofE Awards helped me gain a place at college and secure my job, where I prepare food in a local restaurant. Both my tutor and boss were impressed when they saw it on my applications, with my boss only asking me about my Awards during my interview. The DofE is so well respected and talking about your experience makes you more memorable to your interviewer.”

Sam, who started his DofE at a school in Hackney, said:

“I think the most important skill I got from the DofE is interpersonal and communication skills. You meet people from all walks of life, elite and down to earth. You learn skills doing the DofE that are not taught in school, and vital skills for work. At job interviews you meet people who have done it or wanted to do it – it comes up in job interviews – it stands out and you can use DofE for examples in interviews.”

And Paralympian Hannah Cockcroft MBE shares her DofE experience, saying:

“I completed my bronze award in 2007 and learnt a level of independence and resilience that I have taken forward with me and that I am sure I would not have had my level of sporting success without. Through the award, I gained the confidence that I can do anything I want to, with a little bit of help. I will forever be grateful to The Duke of Edinburgh for giving me the experiences and opportunities that I have had through his charity and the support they continue to provide.”

Do I need to complete all three stages of the Duke of Edinburgh's Award?

No, you can choose to stop after Bronze or Silver, but you must complete each level before moving to the next. The Award scheme does become increasingly challenging, and requires higher levels of time-management, independence, self-motivation and commitment as students progress. All that hard work is rewarded, though, if you achieve the Gold as this is presented to students by Prince Edward, a member of the British Royal Family, at one of the many ceremonies held worldwide.

Students work alone and as a team to complete various stages of the DofE Award

How has the Duke of Edinburgh's Award changed due to Covid?

As Covid-19 continues to spread worldwide, the pandemic has affected various parts of the Award. There are currently temporary changes to the Award that make it easier for students to continue with their journey during these challenging times. For example, anyone who is unable to volunteer with an organisation outside their home or online can now volunteer from home for family members, and there is the option of completing a Virtual Bronze Exploration (VBE) that can be completed from home.

A tribute to HRH Prince Philip

The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award (DofE) is asking anyone across the UK who has done their DofE to share their experiences in celebration of The Duke’s legacy at DofE.org.

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